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The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains why it remains the most significant event in our history. More than almost any other nation in the world, the United States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains why it remains the most significant event in our history. More than almost any other nation in the world, the United States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid and not based on any universally shared heritage, we have had to continually return to our nation's founding to understand who we are. In 'The Idea of America', Wood reflects on the birth of American nationhood and explains why the revolution remains so essential. In a series of elegant and illuminating essays, Wood explores the ideological origins of the revolution - from ancient Rome to the European Enlightenment - and the founders' attempts to forge an American democracy. As Wood reveals, while the founders hoped to create a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers and uninterested leaders, they instead gave birth to a sprawling, licentious, and materialistic popular democracy. Wood also traces the origins of American exceptionalism to this period, revealing how the revolutionary generation, despite living in a distant, sparsely populated country, believed itself to be the most enlightened people on earth. The revolution gave Americans their messianic sense of purpose-and perhaps our continued propensity to promote democracy around the world-because the founders believed their colonial rebellion had universal significance for oppressed peoples everywhere. Yet what may seem like audacity in retrospect reflected the fact that in the eighteenth century republicanism was a truly radical ideology-as radical as Marxism would be in the nineteenth-and one that indeed inspired revolutionaries the world over. Today there exists what Wood calls a terrifying gap between us and the founders, such that it requires almost an act of imagination to fully recapture their era. Because we now take our democracy for granted, it is nearly impossible for us to appreciate how deeply the founders feared their grand experiment in liberty could evolve into monarchy or dissolve into licentiousness. Gracefully written and filled with insight, 'The Idea of America' helps us to recapture the fears and hopes of the revolutionary generation and its attempts to translate those ideals into a working democracy.


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The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains why it remains the most significant event in our history. More than almost any other nation in the world, the United States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American The preeminent historian of the American Revolution explains why it remains the most significant event in our history. More than almost any other nation in the world, the United States began as an idea. For this reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood believes that the American Revolution is the most important event in our history, bar none. Since American identity is so fluid and not based on any universally shared heritage, we have had to continually return to our nation's founding to understand who we are. In 'The Idea of America', Wood reflects on the birth of American nationhood and explains why the revolution remains so essential. In a series of elegant and illuminating essays, Wood explores the ideological origins of the revolution - from ancient Rome to the European Enlightenment - and the founders' attempts to forge an American democracy. As Wood reveals, while the founders hoped to create a virtuous republic of yeoman farmers and uninterested leaders, they instead gave birth to a sprawling, licentious, and materialistic popular democracy. Wood also traces the origins of American exceptionalism to this period, revealing how the revolutionary generation, despite living in a distant, sparsely populated country, believed itself to be the most enlightened people on earth. The revolution gave Americans their messianic sense of purpose-and perhaps our continued propensity to promote democracy around the world-because the founders believed their colonial rebellion had universal significance for oppressed peoples everywhere. Yet what may seem like audacity in retrospect reflected the fact that in the eighteenth century republicanism was a truly radical ideology-as radical as Marxism would be in the nineteenth-and one that indeed inspired revolutionaries the world over. Today there exists what Wood calls a terrifying gap between us and the founders, such that it requires almost an act of imagination to fully recapture their era. Because we now take our democracy for granted, it is nearly impossible for us to appreciate how deeply the founders feared their grand experiment in liberty could evolve into monarchy or dissolve into licentiousness. Gracefully written and filled with insight, 'The Idea of America' helps us to recapture the fears and hopes of the revolutionary generation and its attempts to translate those ideals into a working democracy.

30 review for The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States

  1. 4 out of 5

    robin friedman

    The Role Of Ideas In The Making Of The United States With his erudition, even-handedness, and thoughtfulness, Gordon Wood is among the best of American historians. Wood's most recent book, "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States" (2011) collects eleven essays written and revisited over a period of nearly 50 years. Wood's lengthy introductory essay and a concluding essay, "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy around the World", The Role Of Ideas In The Making Of The United States With his erudition, even-handedness, and thoughtfulness, Gordon Wood is among the best of American historians. Wood's most recent book, "The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States" (2011) collects eleven essays written and revisited over a period of nearly 50 years. Wood's lengthy introductory essay and a concluding essay, "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy around the World", frame and give focus to this collection of Wood's writing about the American Revolution and its continued significance. The book functions both as a history and as a meditation on writing history. The major theme of the book is that the American Revolution is "the most important event in American history, bar none". The Revolution legally created the United States, and infused into it "all our highest aspirations and noblest values", including our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutional government, and the dignity of ordinary people. The Revolution also created for Americans their perceived mission to "lead the world toward liberty and democracy." Wood's essays develop this theme in a variety of contexts. The second theme of the book involves the role of ideas in the American Revolution and, more broadly, in history. In the early 20th Century, historians of the progressive school discounted the importance of ideas and argued that the Revolution had an economic base. The progressives thought that the leaders of the Revolutionary Era acted from motives of economic self-interest with their professed ideals a thin epiphenomenon. The most famous work of the progressive school was Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States". In the 1960s, Bernard Bailyn wrote his still-famous study "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" which took issue with the progressives and made a strong case that the Revolution was based on the Founders' understanding and adoption of liberal British thought. Wood tries to take a nuanced position between the progressives and the writers he terms the idealists. He acknowledges that passion and necessity are ordinarily much large sources of human conduct than are ideas. Yet, he sees ideas as of critical importance in that they occur within the context of life and passion and help shape them. Wood endeavors to explore ideas and their significance in a way that supports rather than contradicts the insights of the progressive school. Wood tries to give the progressives more credit than they currently receive, but his account to me is still idea-driven. A third theme of the book involves the question of "presentism" in historical writing -- the tendency to explore historical questions solely by focusing on contemporary preoccupations. Presentism results in polemics and in historical misinterpretation, Wood argues. It ignores the complexity of the past and changes in human thought over time. Wood makes an effort to understand the Revolutionary Era and its participants on their own terms without forcing them into a mold created by current questions. Wood tries to show how people in the Eighteenth Century viewed issues differently than people today view issues. He undertakes the difficult task of explaining the Founders and the Revolution in terms of the culture of their day which is not necessarily the same as early Twenty-first century culture. Wood also tries to the extent possible to avoid taking sides as, for example, between Federalists such as Hamilton and democrats such as Jefferson and to understand and explain each position within its historical context. The essays are dense, richly textured, and formidably documented. The three essays in Part 1 of the book, titled "The American Revolution", consider the relationship between ideas and economics in the Revolutionary era and thus continue the exploration of the progressive-idealist schools of thought that Wood describes in his introductory essay. The second essay considers the influence of classical Roman thought on the Founders. The third essay, titled "Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century" is both a historical and a philosophical discussion of the nature of conspiracy theories and of the reasons for the appeal of such theories in the 18th Century. Wood offers insight into the continued contemporary appeal of various types of conspiracy theories of events. The second part of the book consists of four essays on "The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy". These essays focus on the role of disinterestedness in the generation of the Founders. Wood argues that the Founders were indeed exceptional in our history in their commitment to a disinterested politics. Wood's essays explain the Founders' understanding of disinterestedness. He suggests that the Founders outlived their own vision -- in other words, the Founders' vision of disinterested politics was soon dashed even in their own lifetimes. The essays compare British ideas of constitutionalism with those developed in the fledgling and rapidly democratizing United States. The final essay in this part offers a comparison of the thought of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Wood admires both Paine and Jefferson and finds they share much in common in their belief that "at bottom, every single individual, men and women, black and white, had a common moral or social sense that tied him or her to other individuals." The four essays in the third part of the book, "The Early Republic", begin with a consideration of monarchy, its continued appeal to some of the Founders, and its relationship to American constitutionalism in the figure of the president. The Federalists in the early days of the United States were accused by their democratic opponents of having monarchical tendencies. Wood explores the extent to which this accusation may have been justified. In an essay titled "Illusions of Power in the Awkward Age of Federalism", Wood discusses how both Federalists and their democratic opponents considerably misjudged contemporary developments that in hindsight appear obvious. Wood tries to show how Federalist thought as represented by Hamilton was anachronistic in its own time but has received something of a resurgence in contemporary America. Wood's essay on "The American Enlightenment" is probably the finest work in this collection as a result of its insight in understanding the source and continuing vitality of American ideals. The final essay "A History of Rights in Early America" is a scholarly account of the development of the judiciary and the doctrine of judicial review, which creates an often tense relationship between the courts and the political branches of government. In his concluding essay, Wood reiterates even more strongly than he does in his introductory essay the "ideological" character of the American Revolution. He argues that ideas are important in understanding the United States. In partial opposition to pragmatic, practical views of the Revolution and of American thinking, Wood maintains that "the American Revolution was as ideological as any revolution in modern Western history, and as a consequence, we Americans have been as ideological-minded as any people in Western culture". Wood argues that Revolutionary ideals continue to challenge Americans in our present difficult times. Wood's learned book has helped me think about the American Revolution and American history. It is also helped me think about the complex nature of historical understanding. Robin Friedman

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    A surprisingly fascinating and surprisingly not dated collection of Wood's essays. For essays on intellectual history and historiography they were eminently readable. My favorite essay, though I enjoyed all of them, was his essay on the obsession over conspiracies during the time. It was smart and made me want to rethink my own writing on the subject of social anxieties during the late 1790s in my dissertation on Charles Brockden Brown. As he explains it, there wasn't anything irrational about t A surprisingly fascinating and surprisingly not dated collection of Wood's essays. For essays on intellectual history and historiography they were eminently readable. My favorite essay, though I enjoyed all of them, was his essay on the obsession over conspiracies during the time. It was smart and made me want to rethink my own writing on the subject of social anxieties during the late 1790s in my dissertation on Charles Brockden Brown. As he explains it, there wasn't anything irrational about the obsession, rather it was based on a commitment to a simplistic belief in cause and effect. The world was becoming too complicated to ensure that one's intentions were fulfilled by one's actions but people resisted accepting chance as a factor in their lives. The belief was that if there were negative consequences to one's actions, one had negative intents. If British officials claimed good intentions but their behavior resulted in negative consequences, something nefarious was clearly going on. The conspiracy theories were based on "particular assumptions about the nature of social reality and the necessity of moral responsibility in human affairs." I learned a lot from his essay on the Origins of American Constitutionalism in which he lays out the difference between English and American constitutional traditions. Their divergence, he argues, came at the point where Americans began to distinguish "legal" from "constitutional." One was "statutory" and the other "fundamental." They also rejected British notions of "virtual" representation and started to insist not only on representation proportionate to population, but also to want their representatives to be "like" them. Wood demonstrates how rhetoric affects reality. As he wonderfully writes, "Self-interest that could not be publicly justified and explained was self-interest that could not be easily acted upon. The Founders..passed on ideas and standards of political behavior that helped to contain and control the unruly materialistic passions unleashed by the democratic revolution of the early nineteenth century." There are a lot more interesting arguments. Worth reading for anyone with an interest in 18-century American history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Howard Mansfield

    The Federalists come to life in Wood’s essays. They were a heroic and failed generation, he says. Riding a wave of high hopes in the 1790s, the Federalists thought that they could control events and establish a new classical civilization. But the country they helped to found was far more commercial and fractious than they had wanted. By decade’s end they were out of power. The 1790s stand out as being separate from all that followed, Wood says in these surprising essays. As always, Wood writes a The Federalists come to life in Wood’s essays. They were a heroic and failed generation, he says. Riding a wave of high hopes in the 1790s, the Federalists thought that they could control events and establish a new classical civilization. But the country they helped to found was far more commercial and fractious than they had wanted. By decade’s end they were out of power. The 1790s stand out as being separate from all that followed, Wood says in these surprising essays. As always, Wood writes as a learned student, as someone who is at home in his subject and never tires of it. The Idea of America is a pleasure

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jamila

    This was helpful for my research on America's values as a republic, Patriotism, and Imperialism.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Brian Willis

    This collection of essays, ranging over 40 years, perfectly represents what makes Gordon Wood the best living historian of the Founding Era of America. Some of the ideas initiated here are fleshed out in his award-winning monographs, and some of the ideas are further fleshed out here from their initial mention in the books. It staggers me that Wood can write about ideas, political theory, and legal foundations in such a way that I can't put a book like this down. Ideas covered here are divided i This collection of essays, ranging over 40 years, perfectly represents what makes Gordon Wood the best living historian of the Founding Era of America. Some of the ideas initiated here are fleshed out in his award-winning monographs, and some of the ideas are further fleshed out here from their initial mention in the books. It staggers me that Wood can write about ideas, political theory, and legal foundations in such a way that I can't put a book like this down. Ideas covered here are divided into three eras: the philosophy of the Revolution, the crafting of the Constitution and governmental principles, and key developments of the early Republic. Wood's coverage of the Revolution here examines the rhetoric and reality of the ideas behind the Revolution, the emulation for the founders of Roman ideas, and intriguingly the belief in conspiracy theories at the time. He insists and focuses on the idea of disinterestedness as an ideal for American politics (meaning that the elected should not be paid for their service, that they are considered to be sacrificing their personal time and business for the duration of their service, nor should they profit off of their election), the origins of the ideas that made their way into the constitutional document, the philosophy behind the idea of democracy in America (for the first time in history, the people themselves are represented in and ARE the government), and the radical ideas of Jefferson and Paine that influenced the constitution from afar). Finally, he writes about the primary assumptions about government and social interactions before and after that era (we moved from a vertical hierarchy to a leveling, horizontal socio-political structure), the concept of power in the age of Federalism, the self-conception of American Enlightenment, how rights were established in those early days, and a great conclusion detailing the ideological American influence on the world since the founding era. Most people might find this book not such a page turner, but it is perfect for reading essay by essay as well. Wood remains a seminal authority on early America, and I couldn't read this fast enough.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Blaine Welgraven

    "As late as 1822 Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian'...If Jefferson as smart and as well-read as he was, had illusions about the future, there is not much hope for the rest of us avoiding illusions about our future. But that is precisely the point of studying history. Before we become arrogant and condescending toward these people in the past, we should realize that we too live with illusions, only we don't know what "As late as 1822 Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian'...If Jefferson as smart and as well-read as he was, had illusions about the future, there is not much hope for the rest of us avoiding illusions about our future. But that is precisely the point of studying history. Before we become arrogant and condescending toward these people in the past, we should realize that we too live with illusions, only we don't know what they are. Perhaps every generation lives with illusions...If the study of history teaches anything, it teaches us the limitations of life. It ought to produce prudence and humility." Wood's Idea of America impacted me more than any other work I read in 2019. Precise, discerning, and erudite, Idea of America's three readable sections--The American Revolution, The Making of the Constitution and American Democracy, and The Early Republic--all reflect Wood's authoritative scholarship conveyed in a series of academic-yet-accessible essays. However, it's the style of Wood's essays--as much or more than the content--that will remain with the dedicated reader and student of history. In an age where hyperbole, misrepresentation, and overstatement seem to collectively dominate daily headlines and most of social media, Wood's work emphasizes synthesis, nuance, and moderation as he reminds the reader of both the critical importance and strenuous nature of a historical mode of thought. Wood's work is a poignant reminder that the Revolutionary heritage is a vital chapter in human history--one worth remembering and preserving. His conclusion will remain with you--challenging you--long after you've finished reading: "What the future will be is impossible to tell. All we can do with our history is to remember that the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea...our devotion to liberty and equality, our abhorrence of privilege, our fear of abused political power, our faith in constitutionalism and individual liberties. We forget--we take for granted--the important things. We can only hope that the idea of America will never die."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    A very elegantly written examination of the intellectual climate that gave rise to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. Some of the essays and lectures in this volume, which was published in 2011, date back to the 1960s, and the author has included some illuminating comments in the Afterword he provides for each. Perhaps it's his natural inclination, but I like to think that Woods' profound optimism about the future of the American experiment arises from his impressive k A very elegantly written examination of the intellectual climate that gave rise to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. Some of the essays and lectures in this volume, which was published in 2011, date back to the 1960s, and the author has included some illuminating comments in the Afterword he provides for each. Perhaps it's his natural inclination, but I like to think that Woods' profound optimism about the future of the American experiment arises from his impressive knowledge and understanding of history.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    There are three kinds of books about history: (1) Historical Surveys. Surveys cover the major events of a certain era in chronological order, and I almost always find them incredibly boring, as they necessarily lack the most important sources of engagement in any piece of writing: flesh and blood protagonists. The fact that history textbooks for public schools are written in this chronological form explains everything we need to know about most Americans' lack of historical literacy or interest. There are three kinds of books about history: (1) Historical Surveys. Surveys cover the major events of a certain era in chronological order, and I almost always find them incredibly boring, as they necessarily lack the most important sources of engagement in any piece of writing: flesh and blood protagonists. The fact that history textbooks for public schools are written in this chronological form explains everything we need to know about most Americans' lack of historical literacy or interest. If you got out of public school with any interest or curiosity about history whatsoever, it was in spite, not because, of how the subject was handled in your textbooks. Most high school students' natural sense of curiosity did not survive. (2) Biographies. These are the most engaging and accessible way to learn about history, especially as, when well written, they can tell a great story about interesting characters influencing and being influenced by fascinating events and personalities. It was through biography that my own interest in American history was rekindled many years after academic textbooks had killed it off. (3) Finally, there are books of Historical Analysis, which, when done well, and when approached with sufficient background knowledge in hand, are the most rewarding of all. These are the books which try to explain the political and/or economic and/or religious and/or geographical and/or military and/or cultural basis for why things happened the way they did. Books that have a theory. Books which prove that history is NOT just one damn thing after another, let alone BUNK. Books that prove history is important as giving us a realization that the choices we are making right now matter, and will continue to matter, for a long time to come, for good or ill. When it comes to the story of the early American republic, Gordon Woods probably writes this third type of history as well as anyone, alive or dead. This book is a collection of some of Wood's short pieces of academic prose, presented over the course of his career as articles for scholarly journals or speeches in various academic forums, each updated for this collection, with notes after each chapter on Woods' current feelings on the issues he covers. Woods is a little more sympathetic towards Jeffersonian Republicanism, and a little more hostile towards Hamiltonian Federalism, than I am. And he appreciates the radical deism of Jefferson and Paine that I find horrifying. But those are minor quibbles. On subject after subject (American historiography as covered in his introduction; the influence of the Roman Republic on the founders' ideology; whether the founders were paranoid conspiracy theorists and if so whether we should care; the British origins and the political ideologogy of the constitution; the rise of self-interested political factions) Woods offers nuanced, non-ideologically driven, enlightenment and clear-cut wisdom. He has no interest in mining the founders for ideological ammunition in any modern political controversies. Rather, his interest lies in helping us to understand the Founders' long-vanished, and, to us, largely incomprehensible, world, and how that world influenced their political viewpoints, and the way they saw themselves. If you could only read one book on early American history in your entirely lifetime, you could do much worse than selecting this volume.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    When I first picked up this book I was expecting a renowned historian's views on what the Revolutionary generation believed when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus bringing to light some of the debates of our modern era. As a student of history, I should've known better than to get my hopes up that by studying the views of the Founders we could answer these questions. However, this book does shed light on the hopes and ideals the Revolutionary generation had when they fough When I first picked up this book I was expecting a renowned historian's views on what the Revolutionary generation believed when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thus bringing to light some of the debates of our modern era. As a student of history, I should've known better than to get my hopes up that by studying the views of the Founders we could answer these questions. However, this book does shed light on the hopes and ideals the Revolutionary generation had when they fought for independence, wrote the Constitution, and went about the business of establishing a new kind of nation on the Earth. Thus, while today's questions about the Constitution (like the meaning behind the second amendment or the limits of executive power) will not be answered, the idea of America and what is was meant to be according to the leaders and people of 1776-1815 and how far we have diverged from that original vision is shown in this book. Unlike other history books this does not have the typical narrative format of starting at one point and ending at another. Instead, it is a collection of essays, speeches, and lectures Mr. Wood has given over the course of his career and he has now edited and updated for our time. He wisely structures them in the typical point A to B format starting with three essays on the Revolution, then four essays on the making of the Constitution, and four on the Early Republic. If you've ever read a scholarly journal before, then you will know what to expect from these essays. They are not always exciting and can be quite dry at times. But if you can pierce through the academic language, you will learn about the Founder's true fears of democracy, the great extent to which the ideal of the Late Roman Republic informed the hopes of the Revolutionary leaders, and the general mindset the Founders had when they launched the Revolution. Like I said before, it is a dry book at times, but a great supplement to any history of the Revolution and Early Republic.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    Each of these 11 essays has something interesting. All are informative. None is outstanding. Gordon Wood has the capability to do much better. This book seems to be a sample of the material in his files from past lectures and papers. Some of the essays are out of date. A short "Afterward" doesn't really make up for the lack of recent thinking on a topic. The best example is the chapter on "Conspiracy and Paranoid Style..." While we don't know the year the chapter was originally published as a pap Each of these 11 essays has something interesting. All are informative. None is outstanding. Gordon Wood has the capability to do much better. This book seems to be a sample of the material in his files from past lectures and papers. Some of the essays are out of date. A short "Afterward" doesn't really make up for the lack of recent thinking on a topic. The best example is the chapter on "Conspiracy and Paranoid Style..." While we don't know the year the chapter was originally published as a paper, the "Afterward" says it was written in reaction to material published in 1965 and 1976. I would imagine there has been a lot thought and discussion on this topic since and a 2011 publication should really have a re-write or at least some material to bring the reader up to date. There is a tendency to make brief comments that attempt to relate the Revolutionary era to our own. This is helpful when the example is a fact, but Dr. Wood can state opinions as fact. An example is on p. 186 describing how by design, judges, who may have the most influence over an individual's life are not often directly accountable to the voters. He then goes on to say that Americans have become "accepting of judicial review, even having the Supreme Court decide who should be president." To me, this is an opinion and should not be included in an essay of this nature. While some of these essays allude to the role of women and the individual and institutional hypocrisy regarding slavery and talk of freedom, neither is themed in any of these essays. A general survey, like this book should have had more material on this.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Michael Johnston

    A fascinating book which advocates the view that both for Americans and for those residing elsewhere in the world, the founding principles of the nation are what define our importance historically and at present. The founding of the nation was not just a revolution to throw off the yoke of monarchical tyranny, but also an ideological revolution which gave substance to basic individual rights that exist separately from those of the state (even the state's popularly elected representatives). The b A fascinating book which advocates the view that both for Americans and for those residing elsewhere in the world, the founding principles of the nation are what define our importance historically and at present. The founding of the nation was not just a revolution to throw off the yoke of monarchical tyranny, but also an ideological revolution which gave substance to basic individual rights that exist separately from those of the state (even the state's popularly elected representatives). The book is a collection of lectures and articles that together build on this theme. Although the work is substantive and at times brilliantly insightful, as all such compilations must be,it does not flow quite as smoothly as a unified book on the topic. Yet this is a minor issue. Wood's perspective on our self perception as a nation feels exactly right and he does a wonderful job of finding pragmatic middle ground on many historical debates. For example, historians have held widely disparate views over time on whether our foundling fathers were brilliant and courageous political theorists, lucky wild eyed revolutionaries or simply representatives of a far greater social and political movement. Wood finds some truth in all viewpoints, as any pragmatist would, but he brings a calmer, more rational and more intellectually satisfying solution to the "man makes the time or time makes the man" debate. Good, thoughtful and enjoyable with lots of interesting views on the founding of our nation (and it's consequences) that will intrigue both the knowledgable and the newcomer.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Iain

    Gordon Wood is an eminent historian who has decided to focus on a particularly turbulent decade in American history, the first one. Examining the men who made America whilst trying to understand the late 18th century society is the task set out and done very well by Wood who presents the case made by both the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans in the early years of the Republic. An analysis of how the founding fathers viewed themselves in comparison to the republicans of antiquity such as Gordon Wood is an eminent historian who has decided to focus on a particularly turbulent decade in American history, the first one. Examining the men who made America whilst trying to understand the late 18th century society is the task set out and done very well by Wood who presents the case made by both the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans in the early years of the Republic. An analysis of how the founding fathers viewed themselves in comparison to the republicans of antiquity such as Cicero, Cato, and Cincinnatus and were in many ways trying to model the new country based on the principles of the Roman Republic before it became too decadent and began to demise as in the writings of Livy, Tacitus, and Plutarch. The juxtaposition of this neo-classicism to what was to sprout up from the beginning of the 19th century a society of avarice, ambition, and run the by the everyman of commerce as education became the trappings of the gentry class is interesting. Despite this, between 1820 ~ 1920, over 35 million "refugees of monarchies" took the leap of faith to start anew in the new world. The idea of America is certainly one that has outlived its critics as millions continue to head for her shores in pursuit of their own version of the American dream. This book will make you think about what a democratic republic is supposed to be and why the United States of America, despite the odds, is still the best example of such a government... 238 years and counting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Rommann

    Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth. :-) All in all a good book, but perhaps a little slow at times.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Billie Pritchett

    The Idea of America is a compendium of essays that reflects historian Grant Wood's life's work to understand American history, particularly the ideologies that motivated American history at the country's inception. The beauty of the work is Wood's ability to trace paths that the United States followed and diverged from at its birth. Wood writes eloquently, for example, of how the United States was founded as a republican monarch, where virtuous big-propertied farmers like the American Founders w The Idea of America is a compendium of essays that reflects historian Grant Wood's life's work to understand American history, particularly the ideologies that motivated American history at the country's inception. The beauty of the work is Wood's ability to trace paths that the United States followed and diverged from at its birth. Wood writes eloquently, for example, of how the United States was founded as a republican monarch, where virtuous big-propertied farmers like the American Founders would rule the country, with the intention that they keep the best interests of the people in their minds when doing so. This was what disinterested government was to look like, they thought, and what many of the Federalists thought needed to be in place because if it were not, then the United States would fall prey to special interest groups. So they argued. It should be noted that "special interest" did not have the same meaning at all it does now. "Special interest" during the eighteenth century really meant the interests of the people, thought to be selfish by many of the Founders, and the suspicion of which constituted a suspicion of democracy, especially as the American Founders thought that democracy could quickly turn into little groups and organized communities pushing for their rights. As American institutions evolved, and the politicians who were supposed to be servants of the American Republic became more beholden to corporate interests--interests which the republicanism of the eighteenth century was designed to fend off but which the laws of the nineteenth century increased--the American people lost more control to these corporate interests, which more and more turned charters and their respective statutes for public utilities into species of private property, statutes that could not be reigned in by law. (See, e.g., the Supreme Court Dartmouth College case (1819), which reinterpreted Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution as meaning that contracts held by corporations were immune from forfeiture.) I should be candid in telling you that this line of history I have just traced is not explicitly endorsed by Wood himself, but it can nevertheless be discerned from Wood's disparate collection of essays, beginning with "Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution" and ending with "A History of Rights in Early America." Unfortunately, in Wood's "Conclusion," he endorses a picture of the United States as a country which was eager to be a shining example of freedom and Enlightenment to other countries, but, what with the 20th century Cold War, which became ever more interventionist in world affairs. Wood acknowledges that the Truman Doctrine (1947) was so much Orwellian doublespeak, designed to protect "free peoples" from "armed minorities," where "free peoples" were authoritarian regimes and "armed minorities" were the revolutionaries fighting for their freedom. Wood sees much of our involvement during the Cold War and in the Middle East as well-intentioned but ultimately a bit naive. Not for Wood to decide, really, or me or you, for that matter, but history.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bob Price

    Gordon Wood is a stud when it comes to Revolutionary war and Early American studies. No where is that more evident than in this collection of essays, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. Republished from a wide variety of sources, these essays reflect on issues that are current in American Politics. His treaties of American Constitutionalism seems to be particularly poignant in this election season, with both views arguing over the meaning of the Constitution. Ofte Gordon Wood is a stud when it comes to Revolutionary war and Early American studies. No where is that more evident than in this collection of essays, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. Republished from a wide variety of sources, these essays reflect on issues that are current in American Politics. His treaties of American Constitutionalism seems to be particularly poignant in this election season, with both views arguing over the meaning of the Constitution. Often surprising,this little book gives insights into Early American life. In "Illusions of Power," Wood is able to trace an early notion of conspiracy theories, fate, and seemingly random events. This essay challenged my conceptions of how the Early Americans viewed power and helped me to see that "Grassy Knoll" people have always been with us. No Wood collection would be complete without reflections on Thomas Jefferson, and his contribution comparing and constrasting Jefferson with Thomas Paine was particularly interesting and valuable. Jefferson, of course, being able to overcome some of the stigma attached with being a radical, while Paine suffered with the bad reputation. Both men contributed greatly to the establishment of the American identity in interesting and unique ways. Wood's concluding essay on the history of rights is also particularly relevant to the times in which we live. It is fascinating how sometimes the fights we have do not go away, they just change form. Woods writing is easier to understand and more lucid than in his Empire of Liberty but he still challenges the average reader. This is not a book to take to the beach, but one that needs to be read in the quiet of a study. I highly recommend this book...in fact this is my pick for the 2012 Election Cycle.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Byron Edgington

    Professor Wood has once again given insights and perspectives unavailable from almost any other author, no matter their level of scholarship. Particularly intriguing in this book are the many references to Federalism vs anti-Federalism in the early Republic, and how those same tensions and challenges persist. Wood mentions the essential American-ness as not so much a country as an idea. I would like to have had more of this theory examined and explored. Also fascinating is the idea of American e Professor Wood has once again given insights and perspectives unavailable from almost any other author, no matter their level of scholarship. Particularly intriguing in this book are the many references to Federalism vs anti-Federalism in the early Republic, and how those same tensions and challenges persist. Wood mentions the essential American-ness as not so much a country as an idea. I would like to have had more of this theory examined and explored. Also fascinating is the idea of American exceptionalism, how quickly our leadership at one time endorsed certain other revolutionary efforts, only to back away from those pronouncements in light of new development and/or lack of 'purity' of those in revolt against oppressive regimes. Wilson's recognition of the Russian effort in 1917 is an example, with its immediacy, followed soon after by a withdrawal of support once the Bolsheviks rose to power. As Wood says, the cold war started at that time. From there it's relatively easy to trace our history straight to such misadventures as Vietnam & Iraq. The remaining question is whether we've maintained our ability to support revolution; or have we lost our way, supporting instead the oppressive regimes we once disdained? It's a question that goes to the heart of who we are as Americans. Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life

  17. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    This is an insightful collection of essays on the American Revolution and the early republic. Wood shows that understanding the birth of the United States is a complicated task. He eschews easy answers and instead provides subtle insights into what makes the American Revolution such a watershed in world history and so important to our understanding of modern America. The essay explaining why the American colonists (and many others throughout Europe) believed so strongly in conspiracy theories wa This is an insightful collection of essays on the American Revolution and the early republic. Wood shows that understanding the birth of the United States is a complicated task. He eschews easy answers and instead provides subtle insights into what makes the American Revolution such a watershed in world history and so important to our understanding of modern America. The essay explaining why the American colonists (and many others throughout Europe) believed so strongly in conspiracy theories was intriguing. I also enjoyed his favorable portrait of the views of Thomas Paine. In this time of intense political partisanship, I also took some comfort in being reminded of the ideological divisions of the first decades of the new republic. The divisiveness of the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans was just as intense as that found in the current climate (even if the partisan flames were not fanned by a 24-hour news cycle) and the republic nevertheless survived. Although it is far from perfect, our experiment in democratic republicanism still functions remarkably well. And although the founding generation could not really have anticipated what America has become, their ideas about what America means (which, admittedly, were not monolithic) still resonate.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Praveen Kishore

    It is a classic! It makes you believe in and realise the lasting importance of American Revolution for our world. Coming from an eminent American historian, its beautiful prose and insightful observations makes the book a hugely engaging as well as entertaining read. And its not only history, in fact it is less history and more thinking, reflections and analysis. A must for everyone!!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Grace

    The phrase "the Founding Fathers' intentions" is increasingly bandied about, with all opponents to every argument believing that the Founders would be in agreement with their side. Most American take for granted that the founders of our nation were all in agreement with one another, that their vision for the United States was based upon incredible foresight as to the challenges and opportunities of the future, and that these men consciously set out to create something similar to the popular demo The phrase "the Founding Fathers' intentions" is increasingly bandied about, with all opponents to every argument believing that the Founders would be in agreement with their side. Most American take for granted that the founders of our nation were all in agreement with one another, that their vision for the United States was based upon incredible foresight as to the challenges and opportunities of the future, and that these men consciously set out to create something similar to the popular democracy that has evolved over the last 200 years. The true history of our founding is far more complex, and far more interesting, than the bland mythology that has obscured it. Minus one star only because this collection of previously published essays and lectures is aimed at an audience of fellow historians and will not be as accessible to a general audience as some of Wood's earlier books, with too many references to minor events sprinkled throughout that general readers will be unfamiliar with. Those looking for an equally informative but more readable narrative would do better with Wood's "The Radicalism of the American Revolution."

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dan Rheingans

    Pre-eminent Revolutionary/Colonial America Historian Gordon Wood's "The Idea of America" is a collection of his essays, lectures, and articles about the ideas of the American Revolution and how those ideas played and still play a significant role in the shaping of the United States, both formally and ideologically, both past and present. The articles are very well argued and presented, and Wood does a excellent job backing up his assertions about the importance of the American Revolution. Some o Pre-eminent Revolutionary/Colonial America Historian Gordon Wood's "The Idea of America" is a collection of his essays, lectures, and articles about the ideas of the American Revolution and how those ideas played and still play a significant role in the shaping of the United States, both formally and ideologically, both past and present. The articles are very well argued and presented, and Wood does a excellent job backing up his assertions about the importance of the American Revolution. Some of the essays were a bit drier than others, but the vast majority I enjoyed. Wood's perspective on how important the Revolution may be challenged by other historians, some of which I know and converse with regularly, but his presentation here in this collection makes it easy to see just how great an impact the period really had on us as a Nation. Overall, a very good read and excellent addition to the collection.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Brad

    In this work, Wood offers us a collection of his essays throughout the previous half of a century. Like all of his work, it is thought provoking and rich. Wood is not a historian one casually reads: a playing child, a television on in the background does not work when reading him (explaining, by way of a perfectly good excuse, why this took me so long to finish!) Instead, you need a peaceful enough environment to let his words sink in. In this way, one truly can learn the truth about our complic In this work, Wood offers us a collection of his essays throughout the previous half of a century. Like all of his work, it is thought provoking and rich. Wood is not a historian one casually reads: a playing child, a television on in the background does not work when reading him (explaining, by way of a perfectly good excuse, why this took me so long to finish!) Instead, you need a peaceful enough environment to let his words sink in. In this way, one truly can learn the truth about our complicated Revolution. Wood treats his expertise in Revolutionary history like a scientist treats his or her work: without bias and with logic and evidence. He has no agenda to put forth other than what the evidence says. Political extremists – on both the right and the left – will find no comfort in Wood but such opinions aren’t academic anyway, motivated instead by ideology. With Wood, the rest of us, those who care about what our history really was and what it really means, are well served by him.

  22. 4 out of 5

    David Montgomery

    An interesting collection of essays about the American Revolution and the Early Republic — and specifically about the ideas motivating the revolutionary generation. Some, such as a look at the impact ideals of ancient Rome had on the Founders, are good for background. Others are more provocative — such as a devil's advocate attempt to argue that the Antifederalists were actually more forward-looking, an examination of the anti-democratic and anti-legislative impulses motivating James Madison and An interesting collection of essays about the American Revolution and the Early Republic — and specifically about the ideas motivating the revolutionary generation. Some, such as a look at the impact ideals of ancient Rome had on the Founders, are good for background. Others are more provocative — such as a devil's advocate attempt to argue that the Antifederalists were actually more forward-looking, an examination of the anti-democratic and anti-legislative impulses motivating James Madison and other Founders in the drafting of the Constitution, and (my favorite) a look at why the Founders were so conspiracy-minded. The introduction, which focuses on the historiography of the Revolution, is a bonus for students of Revolutionary history but largely superfluous. Overall this is a short book that can be read all at once or one essay at a time, and that succeeds in helping modern readers penetrate the Early Modern minds that so shaped modern America.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Naum

    At first glance, did not think I was going to enjoy this, even in spite of devouring and embracing Wood's other historical works (most recently, *Empire of Liberty*), but this is an outstanding collection of essays on the creation of America. They range in chronology from the 1960s until the present time and explore themes like Roman (founders all big devotees and disciples of Cato, Cicero, etc.… able to recite lines and relished in theater enactments) influence on the founders, the "radicalism" At first glance, did not think I was going to enjoy this, even in spite of devouring and embracing Wood's other historical works (most recently, *Empire of Liberty*), but this is an outstanding collection of essays on the creation of America. They range in chronology from the 1960s until the present time and explore themes like Roman (founders all big devotees and disciples of Cato, Cicero, etc.… able to recite lines and relished in theater enactments) influence on the founders, the "radicalism" of Paine and Jefferson, the American brew of Enlightenment, monarchy v. democracy (democracy simply had no historical precedent, except for the brief, crude and flawed Athenian model thousands of years earlier), democracy v. republic, etc.… If the "American Creation" story interests you, you will want to read this.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Wise

    This was really slow at first, talking about philosophy of history issues, etc.. But for anyone interested in American history and the ideas of republicanism as they were renewed in the Enlightenment era and grew in the soil of the American colonies, you'll eventually be fascinated. Of particular significance is Wood's emphasis on the founders' belief that republics are held together by a people which has developed the virtue to put the nation ahead of personal, factional interests; also, his c This was really slow at first, talking about philosophy of history issues, etc.. But for anyone interested in American history and the ideas of republicanism as they were renewed in the Enlightenment era and grew in the soil of the American colonies, you'll eventually be fascinated. Of particular significance is Wood's emphasis on the founders' belief that republics are held together by a people which has developed the virtue to put the nation ahead of personal, factional interests; also, his concluding reflections on America's use of its superpower and the degree to which it employs it to create democracies as opposed to letting them spring up as people are "enlightened" by the American example.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Douglass Gaking

    The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood captures the cultural environment of the American Revolution and constitutional beginnings. He shows why the founding of the United States was, is, and will continue to be historically significant. This book is made up of papers and speeches that Wood has given throughout his career. Each is edited to be more relevant to today's readers and to help fit with the other pieces included in the book. An introduction and conclusion bookend these pieces The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood captures the cultural environment of the American Revolution and constitutional beginnings. He shows why the founding of the United States was, is, and will continue to be historically significant. This book is made up of papers and speeches that Wood has given throughout his career. Each is edited to be more relevant to today's readers and to help fit with the other pieces included in the book. An introduction and conclusion bookend these pieces to help tie them all together. The book flows very well from beginning to end, but also works as a reference that you can pick up to read 20 pages at a time. This is a great summer read to reflect on the founding of our nation that we celebrate on the many early summer patriotic holidays.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Rudisel

    Super enlightening. Just when you think you know a decent amount about a topic, a book like this comes along and blows a lot of your tidy assumptions clear out of the water with its much deeper grasp of the complexities involved. This is great historical scholarship and great in-depth research into the process of history writing itself. My understanding of the founding of the USA and the legacy of that astounding process, which extends to our own time, has blossomed and diverged and expanded in cou Super enlightening. Just when you think you know a decent amount about a topic, a book like this comes along and blows a lot of your tidy assumptions clear out of the water with its much deeper grasp of the complexities involved. This is great historical scholarship and great in-depth research into the process of history writing itself. My understanding of the founding of the USA and the legacy of that astounding process, which extends to our own time, has blossomed and diverged and expanded in countless ways. Highly recommended.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Wally Muchow

    This book was a series of essays about the period of American history from 1789 to the Jackson presidency. It was very interesting and enlightening about a period that has not been covered in great detail. The recounted discussions on what form of government the United States should adopt was both interesting and informative The discussion of Paine and Jefferson was also interesting as to their similar views but very different fates. The section on paranoia in the early republic was very interes This book was a series of essays about the period of American history from 1789 to the Jackson presidency. It was very interesting and enlightening about a period that has not been covered in great detail. The recounted discussions on what form of government the United States should adopt was both interesting and informative The discussion of Paine and Jefferson was also interesting as to their similar views but very different fates. The section on paranoia in the early republic was very interesting and confirms that not much has really changed in the basic makeup of American society.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    In many ways this book is an expansion of the ideas and themes Wood presented in his earlier work Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States). His last chapter, an essay titled "The American Revolutionary Tradition, or Why America Wants to Spread Democracy Around the World" is must reading for anyone interested in the history and future of "American Exceptionalism".

  29. 4 out of 5

    Garrett

    This is a great collection of essays covering the period from Colonial to early-19th Century America. Wood does a fine job of exploring different aspects of the creation of the United States. One of the best essays is on the idea of "rights." I especially enjoyed the more focussed attention on how the 'idea' of America came into being and how it changed from the Revolutionary War to the early 19th Century.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Woodman

    I did not like this nearly as much as I have enjoyed other books by this author--his last book was quite good, and this was more erudite and academic than it was readable. Maybe essays on the revolution are not my cup of tea.

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